Happy 10th anniversary, Android

It’s been 10 years since Google took the wraps off the G1, the first Android phone. Since that time the OS has grown from buggy, nerdy iPhone alternative to arguably the most popular (or at least populous) computing platform in the world. But it sure as heck didn’t get there without hitting a few bumps along the road.

Join us for a brief retrospective on the last decade of Android devices: the good, the bad, and the Nexus Q.

HTC G1 (2008)

This is the one that started it all, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the old thing. Also known as the HTC Dream — this was back when we had an HTC, you see — the G1 was about as inauspicious a debut as you can imagine. Its full keyboard, trackball, slightly janky slide-up screen (crooked even in official photos), and considerable girth marked it from the outset as a phone only a real geek could love. Compared to the iPhone, it was like a poorly dressed whale.

But in time its half-baked software matured and its idiosyncrasies became apparent for the smart touches they were. To this day I occasionally long for a trackball or full keyboard, and while the G1 wasn’t pretty, it was tough as hell.

Moto Droid (2009)

Of course, most people didn’t give Android a second look until Moto came out with the Droid, a slicker, thinner device from the maker of the famed RAZR. In retrospect, the Droid wasn’t that much better or different than the G1, but it was thinner, had a better screen, and had the benefit of an enormous marketing push from Motorola and Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch, but this doesn’t affect our coverage in any way.)

For many, the Droid and its immediate descendants were the first Android phones they had — something new and interesting that blew the likes of Palm out of the water, but also happened to be a lot cheaper than an iPhone.

HTC/Google Nexus One (2010)

This was the fruit of the continued collaboration between Google and HTC, and the first phone Google branded and sold itself. The Nexus One was meant to be the slick, high-quality device that would finally compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It ditched the keyboard, got a cool new OLED screen, and had a lovely smooth design. Unfortunately it ran into two problems.

First, the Android ecosystem was beginning to get crowded. People had lots of choices and could pick up phones for cheap that would do the basics. Why lay the cash out for a fancy new one? And second, Apple would shortly release the iPhone 4, which — and I was an Android fanboy at the time — objectively blew the Nexus One and everything else out of the water. Apple had brought a gun to a knife fight.

HTC Evo 4G (2010)

Another HTC? Well, this was prime time for the now-defunct company. They were taking risks no one else would, and the Evo 4G was no exception. It was, for the time, huge: the iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, and most Android devices weren’t much bigger, if they weren’t smaller.

The Evo 4G somehow survived our criticism (our alarm now seems extremely quaint, given the size of the average phone now) and was a reasonably popular phone, but ultimately is notable not for breaking sales records but breaking the seal on the idea that a phone could be big and still make sense. (Honorable mention goes to the Droid X.)

Samsung Galaxy S (2010)

Samsung’s big debut made a hell of a splash, with custom versions of the phone appearing in the stores of practically every carrier, each with their own name and design: the AT&T Captivate, T-Mobile Vibrant, Verizon Fascinate, and Sprint Epic 4G. As if the Android lineup wasn’t confusing enough already at the time!

Though the S was a solid phone, it wasn’t without its flaws, and the iPhone 4 made for very tough competition. But strong sales reinforced Samsung’s commitment to the platform, and the Galaxy series is still going strong today.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

This was an era in which Android devices were responding to Apple, and not vice versa as we find today. So it’s no surprise that hot on the heels of the original iPad we found Google pushing a tablet-focused version of Android with its partner Motorola, which volunteered to be the guinea pig with its short-lived Xoom tablet.

Although there are still Android tablets on sale today, the Xoom represented a dead end in development — an attempt to carve a piece out of a market Apple had essentially invented and soon dominated. Android tablets from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others were rarely anything more than adequate, though they sold well enough for a while. This illustrated the impossibility of “leading from behind” and prompted device makers to specialize rather than participate in a commodity hardware melee.

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

And who better to illustrate than Amazon? Its contribution to the Android world was the Fire series of tablets, which differentiated themselves from the rest by being extremely cheap and directly focused on consuming digital media. Just $200 at launch and far less later, the Fire devices catered to the regular Amazon customer whose kids were pestering them about getting a tablet on which to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, but who didn’t want to shell out for an iPad.

Turns out this was a wise strategy, and of course one Amazon was uniquely positioned to do with its huge presence in online retail and the ability to subsidize the price out of the reach of competition. Fire tablets were never particularly good, but they were good enough, and for the price you paid, that was kind of a miracle.

Xperia Play (2011)

Sony has always had a hard time with Android. Its Xperia line of phones for years were considered competent — I owned a few myself — and arguably industry-leading in the camera department. But no one bought them. And the one they bought the least of, or at least proportional to the hype it got, has to be the Xperia Play. This thing was supposed to be a mobile gaming platform, and the idea of a slide-out keyboard is great — but the whole thing basically cratered.

What Sony had illustrated was that you couldn’t just piggyback on the popularity and diversity of Android and launch whatever the hell you wanted. Phones didn’t sell themselves, and although the idea of playing Playstation games on your phone might have sounded cool to a few nerds, it was never going to be enough to make it a million-seller. And increasingly that’s what phones needed to be.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2012)

As a sort of natural climax to the swelling phone trend, Samsung went all out with the first true “phablet,” and despite groans of protest the phone not only sold well but became a staple of the Galaxy series. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before Apple would follow on and produce a Plus-sized phone of its own.

The Note also represented a step towards using a phone for serious productivity, not just everyday smartphone stuff. It wasn’t entirely successful — Android just wasn’t ready to be highly productive — but in retrospect it was forward thinking of Samsung to make a go at it and begin to establish productivity as a core competence of the Galaxy series.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This abortive effort by Google to spread Android out into a platform was part of a number of ill-considered choices at the time. No one really knew, apparently at Google or anywhere elsewhere in the world, what this thing was supposed to do. I still don’t. As we wrote at the time:

Here’s the problem with the Nexus Q:  it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware that’s being let down by the software that’s supposed to control it.

It was made, or rather nearly made in the USA, though, so it had that going for it.

HTC First — “The Facebook Phone” (2013)

The First got dealt a bad hand. The phone itself was a lovely piece of hardware with an understated design and bold colors that stuck out. But its default launcher, the doomed Facebook Home, was hopelessly bad.

How bad? Announced in April, discontinued in May. I remember visiting an AT&T store during that brief period and even then the staff had been instructed in how to disable Facebook’s launcher and reveal the perfectly good phone beneath. The good news was that there were so few of these phones sold new that the entire stock started selling for peanuts on Ebay and the like. I bought two and used them for my early experiments in ROMs. No regrets.

HTC One/M8 (2014)

This was the beginning of the end for HTC, but their last few years saw them update their design language to something that actually rivaled Apple. The One and its successors were good phones, though HTC oversold the “Ultrapixel” camera, which turned out to not be that good, let alone iPhone-beating.

As Samsung increasingly dominated, Sony plugged away, and LG and Chinese companies increasingly entered the fray, HTC was under assault and even a solid phone series like the One couldn’t compete. 2014 was a transition period with old manufacturers dying out and the dominant ones taking over, eventually leading to the market we have today.

Google/LG Nexus 5X and Huawei 6P (2015)

This was the line that brought Google into the hardware race in earnest. After the bungled Nexus Q launch, Google needed to come out swinging, and they did that by marrying their more pedestrian hardware with some software that truly zinged. Android 5 was a dream to use, Marshmallow had features that we loved … and the phones became objects that we adored.

We called the 6P “the crown jewel of Android devices”. This was when Google took its phones to the next level and never looked back.

Google Pixel (2016)

If the Nexus was, in earnest, the starting gun for Google’s entry into the hardware race, the Pixel line could be its victory lap. It’s an honest-to-god competitor to the Apple phone.

Gone are the days when Google is playing catch-up on features to Apple, instead, Google’s a contender in its own right. The phone’s camera is amazing. The software works relatively seamlessly (bring back guest mode!), and phone’s size and power are everything anyone could ask for. The sticker price, like Apple’s newest iPhones, is still a bit of a shock, but this phone is the teleological endpoint in the Android quest to rival its famous, fruitful, contender.

Let’s see what the next ten years bring.

Apple’s Watch isn’t the first with an EKG reader but it will matter to more consumers

Apple’s COO Jeff Williams exuberantly proclaimed Apple’s Watch was the first to get FDA clearance as an over-the-counter electrocardiogram (EKG) reader during the special event at Apple headquarters on Wednesday. While Apple loves to be first to things, that statement is false.

AliveCor has held the title of first since late last year for its KardiaMobile device, a $100 stick-like metal unit you attach to the back of a smartphone. Ironically, it also received FDA clearance for the Kardiaband, an ECG reader designed to integrate with the Apple Watch and sold at Apple stores and just this week, the FDA gave the go ahead for AliveCor’s technology to screen for blood diseases, sans blood test.

However, the Apple Watch could be the first to matter to a wider range of consumers. For one, Apple holds a firm 17 percent of the world’s wearables market, with an estimated shipment volume of 28 million units in just 2018. While we don’t know how many AliveCor Kardiaband and KardiaMobile units were sold, it’s very unlikely to be anywhere near those numbers.

For another thing, a lot of people, even those who suspect they have a heart condition, might have some hesitations around getting a separate device just to check. Automatic integration makes it easy for those curious to start monitoring without needing to purchase any extra equipment. Also, while heart disease is the number one killer in the U.S. and affects a good majority of the global population, most of us probably aren’t thinking about our heart rhythm on a daily basis. Integrating an EKG reader straight into the Watch makes monitoring seamless and could take away the fear some may have about finding out how their heart is doing.

Then there’s the Apple brand, itself. Many hospitals are now partnering with Apple to use iPads and it’s reasonable to think there could be some collaboration with the Watch.

“Doctors, hospital systems, health insurers, and self-insured employers don’t want to manage separate partnerships with each of Apple, Xiaomi, Fitbit, Huawei, Garmin, Polar, Samsung, Fossil, and every other wearable manufacturers. They need a cross-platform product that works for all of their patients,” Cardiogram founder and EKG researcher Brandon Ballinger told TechCrunch. “So if Apple becomes the Apple of healthcare, then a company like Cardiogram or AliveCor can become the Microsofts of this space.”

How does this announcement from Apple affect AliveCor? CEO Vic Gundotra shrugs it off. He tells TechCrunch the vast majority of AliveCor’s business is from KardiaMobile, not it’s Apple-integrated ECG reader. “Apple has long alluded they were building something like this into the device,” Gundotra said, “so we’ve been anticipating it.”

Samsung launches an LTE-enabled Tile competitor

Samsung, naturally, would never be content to launch a regular old Tile competitor. The company just doesn’t roll like that. While the basic foundation of the SmartThings Tracker is similar to what Tile and a number of other startups offer, Samsung’s packed all it can into the product.

The device tracker utilizes a combination of GPS to help locate lost products. The addition of LTE-M, meanwhile, means things like lost keys, backpacks and other belongings can be found through a much broader range of settings than standard Bluetooth-enabled products. That means, among other things, that tracking is easier to pinpoint indoors and below ground.

The device is compatible with Samsung’s existing SmartThings app (kind of a catchall for all things Samsung IoT) for Android and iOS, offering, among other things, real-time tracking. There’s also a geofencing setting that lets the Tracker double as an arrival sensor to help trigger different smart home functionality when the wearer gets home. When attached to something like a dog collar, meanwhile, it will set a notification when a pet has crossed a certain barrier.

The product launches September 14 as an AT&T exclusive, with a Verizon version launching later in the year. It’s not exactly cheap, with a $99 price tag — though that includes 12 free months of LTE-M service. After that, it will run $5 a month — so that will add up pretty quickly.

Scientists make a touch tablet that rolls and scrolls

Research scientists at Queen’s University’s Human Media Lab have built a prototype touchscreen device that’s neither smartphone nor tablet but kind of both — and more besides. The device, which they’ve christened the MagicScroll, is inspired by ancient (papyrus/paper/parchment) scrolls so it takes a rolled-up, cylindrical form factor — enabled by a flexible 7.5inch touchscreen housed in the casing.

This novel form factor, which they made using 3D printing, means the device can be used like an erstwhile rolodex (remember those?!) for flipping through on-screen contacts quickly by turning a physical rotary wheel built into the edge of the device. (They’ve actually added one on each end.)

Then, when more information or a deeper dive is required, the user is able to pop the screen out of the casing to expand the visible display real estate. The flexible screen on the prototype has a resolution of 2K. So more mid-tier mobile phone of yore than crisp iPhone Retina display at this nascent stage.

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The scientists also reckon the scroll form factor offers a pleasing ergonomically option for making actual phone calls too, given that a rolled up scroll can sit snugly against the face.

Though they admit their prototype is still rather large at this stage — albeit, that just adds to the delightfully retro feel of the thing, making it come over like a massive mobile phone of the 1980s. Like the classic Motorola 8000X Dynatac of 1984.

While still bulky at this R&D stage, the team argues the cylindrical, flexible screen form factor of their prototype offers advantages by being lightweight and easier to hold with one hand than a traditional tablet device, such as an iPad. And when rolled up they point out it can also fit in a pocket. (Albeit, a large one.)

They also imagine it being used as a dictation device or pointing device, as well as a voice phone. And the prototype includes a camera — which allows the device to be controlled using gestures, similar to Nintendo’s ‘Wiimote’ gesture system.

In another fun twist they’ve added robotic actuators to the rotary wheels so the scroll can physically move or spin in place in various scenarios, such as when it receives a notification. Clocky eat your heart out.

“We were inspired by the design of ancient scrolls because their form allows for a more natural, uninterrupted experience of long visual timelines,” said Roel Vertegaal, professor of human-computer interaction and director of the lab, in a statement.

“Another source of inspiration was the old rolodex filing systems that were used to store and browse contact cards. The MagicScroll’s scroll wheel allows for infinite scroll action for quick browsing through long lists. Unfolding the scroll is a tangible experience that gives a full screen view of the selected item. Picture browsing through your Instagram timeline, messages or LinkedIn contacts this way!”

“Eventually, our hope is to design the device so that it can even roll into something as small as a pen that you could carry in your shirt pocket,” he added. “More broadly, the MagicScroll project is also allowing us to further examine notions that ‘screens don’t have to be flat’ and ‘anything can become a screen’. Whether it’s a reusable cup made of an interactive screen on which you can select your order before arriving at a coffee-filling kiosk, or a display on your clothes, we’re exploring how objects can become the apps.”

The team has made a video showing the prototype in action (embedded below), and will be presenting the project at the MobileHCI conference on Human-Computer Interaction in Barcelona next month.

While any kind of mobile device resembling the MagicScroll is clearly very, very far off even a sniff of commercialization (especially as these sorts of concept devices have long been teased by mobile device firms’ R&D labs — while the companies keep pumping out identikit rectangles of touch-sensitive glass… ), it’s worth noting that Samsung has been slated to be working a a smartphone with a foldable screen for some years now. And, according to the most recent chatter about this rumor, it might be released next year. Or, well, it still might not.

But whether Samsung’s definition of ‘foldable’ will translate into something as flexibly bendy as the MagicScroll prototype is highly, highly doubtful. A fused clamshell design — where two flat screens could be opened to seamlessly expand them and closed up again to shrink the device footprint for pocketability — seems a much more likely choice for Samsung designers to make, given the obvious commercial challenges of selling a device with a transforming form factor that’s also robust enough to withstand everyday consumer use and abuse.

Add to that, for all the visual fun of these things, it’s not clear that consumers would be inspired to adopt anything so different en masse. Sophisticated (and inevitably) fiddly devices are more likely to appeal to specific niche use cases and user scenarios.

For the mainstream six inches of touch-sensitive (and flat) glass seems to do the trick.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 and Galaxy Watch are available now

Need something to put on that new Wireless Charging Duo? Good news — the Galaxy Note 9 and Galaxy Watch are available now. Here’s the my full 3,000 word review of the Note 9. The TLDR version is, essentially:

  • Good screen
  • Very good camera
  • Decently long battery
  • Interesting new S-Pen tricks
  • Way, way too pricey

As for the Galaxy Watch, well, I’m wearing that one as I type this. Expect a review in the near future. But in the meantime, I’m enjoying the experience and am glad the company finally opted for a smaller size — even if that one might still be too larger for many wrists.

Both devices are available in a bunch of places, but it’s different SKUs for different vendors, so here’s the info straight from Samsung:

The 128GB Galaxy Note 9 can be purchased through carriers including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Verizon Wireless and Xfinity, along with Best Buy, Costco, Sam’s Club, Straight Talk Wireless, Target, Walmart, Samsung.com and the ShopSamsung app. The 512GB version is available at select retail locations and online at AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, U.S. Cellular and Samsung.com.

And here’s the same for the Galaxy Watch

Starting at $329.99 for the 42mm and $349.99 for the 46mm, is now available at Amazon, Best Buy and Samsung.com in the U.S. The Galaxy Watch LTE version is also available today, at Samsung.com and T-Mobile starting at $379.99 for the 42mm, and $399.99 for the 46mm.

As for the Galaxy Home smart speaker, your guess is as good as ours.

Costco now supports Apple Pay across all of its US stores

Apple has landed a big new partner for Apple Pay in the U.S. after Costco began accepting the mobile payment service across 750 stores. The retailer plans to include support at its gas stations, but that isn’t yet complete.

The rollout — first reported by MacRumors — follows limited trials at selected Costco outlets, including a warehouse near its corporate headquarters in Washington.

This new partnership comes hot on the heels of Apple’s landing similar deals with CVS and 7-Eleven. The deal with CVS is particularly notable since the retailer had held off on supporting the Apple service, to the point that it even developed its own alternative that is based on barcodes. Apple also secured a deal this summer to add Apple Pay support to eBay which gives it more breath among online retailers, too.

The service is operational in 30 international markets and, in the U.S., it is tipped to account for half of all contactless payments operated by an OEM by 2020, according to a recent analyst report.

The market for such services — which includes Samsung Pay, Google Pay and others — is tipped to reach 450 million consumers. Apple, though, is already seeing the benefits. Apple Pay is part of the company’s ‘services’ division which recorded revenue of $9.6 billion in the last quarter, that’s up 31 percent year-over-year.

Making way for new levels of American innovation

New fifth-generation “5G” network technology will equip the United States with a superior wireless platform unlocking transformative economic potential. However, 5G’s success is contingent on modernizing outdated policy frameworks that dictate infrastructure overhauls and establishing the proper balance of public-private partnerships to encourage investment and deployment.

Most people have heard by now of the coming 5G revolution. Compared to 4G, this next-generation technology will deliver near-instantaneous connection speed, significantly lower latency – meaning near-zero buffer times – and increased connectivity capacity to allow billions of devices and applications to come online and communicate simultaneously and seamlessly.

While 5G is often discussed in future tense, the reality is it’s already here. Its capabilities were displayed earlier this year at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where Samsung and Intel  class="m_4430823757643656150MsoHyperlink">showcased a 5G enabled virtual reality (VR) broadcasting experience to event goers. In addition, multiple U.S. carriers including Verizon, AT&T and Sprint have announced commercial deployments in select markets by the end of 2018, while chipmaker Qualcomm unveiled last month its new 5G millimeter-wave module that outfits smartphones with 5G compatibility.

BARCELONA, SPAIN – 2018/02/26: View of the phone company QUALCOMM technology 5G in the Mobile World Congress.
The Mobile World Congress 2018 is being hosted in Barcelona from 26 February to 1st March. (Photo by Ramon Costa/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

While this commitment from 5G commercial developers is promising, long-term success of 5G is ultimately dependent on addressing two key issues.

The first step is ensuring the right policies are established at the federal, state and municipal levels in the U.S. that will allow the buildout of needed infrastructure, namely “small cells”. This equipment is designed to fit on streetlights, lampposts and buildings. You may not even notice them as you walk by, but they are critical to adding capacity to the network and transmitting wireless activity quickly and reliably. 

In many communities across the U.S., 20th century infrastructure policies are slowing the emergence of bringing next-generation networks and technologies online. Issues including costs per small cell attachment, permitting around public rights-of-way and deadlines on application reviews are all less-than-exciting topics of conversation but act as real threats to achieving timely implementation of 5G according to recent research from Accenture and the 5G Americas organization.

Policymakers can mitigate these setbacks by taking inventory of their own policy frameworks and, where needed, streamlining and modernizing processes. For instance, current small cell permit applications can take upwards of 18 to 24 months to advance through the approval process as a result of needed buy-in from many local commissions, city councils, etc. That’s an incredible amount of time for a community to wait around and ultimately fall behind on next-generation access. As a result, policymakers are beginning to act. 

13 states, including Florida, Ohio, and Texas have already passed bills alleviating some of the local infrastructure hurdles accompanying increased broadband network deployment, including delays and pricing. Additionally, this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has moved on multiple orders that look to remedy current 5G roadblocks including opening up commercial access to more amounts of needed high-, mid- and low-band spectrum.

The second step is identifying areas in which public and private entities can partner to drive needed capital and resources towards 5G initiatives. These types of collaborations were first made popular in Europe, where we continue to see significant advancement of infrastructure initiatives through combined public-private planning including the European Commission and European ICT industry’s 5G Infrastructure Public Private Partnership (5G PPP).

The U.S. is increasing its own public-private levels of planning. In 2015, the Obama Administration’s Department of Transportation launched its successful “Smart City Challenge” encouraging planning and funding in U.S. cities around advanced connectivity. More recently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded New York City a $22.5 million grant through its Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) initiative to create and deploy the first of a series of wireless research hubs focused on 5G-related breakthroughs including high-bandwidth and low-latency data transmission, millimeter wave spectrum, next-generation mobile network architecture, and edge cloud computing integration.

While these efforts should be applauded, it’s important to remember they are merely initial steps. A recent study conducted by CTIA, a leading trade association for the wireless industry, found that the United States remains behind both China and South Korea in 5G development. If other countries beat the U.S. to the punch, which some anticipate is already happening, companies and sectors that require ubiquitous, fast, and seamless connection – like autonomous transportation for example – could migrate, develop, and evolve abroad casting lasting negative impact on U.S. innovation. 

The potential economic gains are also significant. A 2017 Accenture report predicts an additional $275 billion in infrastructure investments from the private sector, resulting in up to 3 million new jobs and a gross domestic product (GDP) increase of $500 billion. That’s just on the infrastructure side alone. On the global scale, we could see as much as $12 trillion in additional economic activity according to discussion at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in January.

Former President John F. Kennedy once said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” When it comes to America’s technology evolution, this quote holds especially true. Our nation has led the digital revolution for decades. Now with 5G, we have the opportunity to unlock an entirely new level of innovation that will make our communities safer, more inclusive and more prosperous for all.

What the rumors say about Google’s upcoming Pixel 3

Now that the Note 9’s all good and official, it’s time to move onto the next major smartphone. The Google Pixel 3 leaks haven’t quite hit the fever pitch we saw with Samsung’s device ahead of launch — though there’s still time. After all, it seems likely the latest version of Google’s flagship Android handset won’t officially be official until October.

Even so, we’ve already seen a handful of credible links, including a full unboxing last week, so we’re starting to develop a pretty good picture of what we’re in for with the device.

For starters, there’s what looks to be a pretty sizable top notch. That Google would embrace the notch this time around is no surprise, really. In additional to being all the rage on practically every non-Samsung flagship, Google made a big deal of making Android Pie notch-friendly.

It seems to follow, then, that the company would embrace the polarizing design decision. That said, even by today’s notch-embracing standards, this is a big one. If anything, it seems that notches are actually getting bigger since Essential helped kickstart the trend by adding one to its first phone.

Speaking of embracing trends, Google dropped the headphone jack for the Pixel 2, after mocking Apple’s decision to do so a year prior. From the looks of it, the company is helping ease the transition with a pair of USB-C headphones, forgoing the necessity for a dongle (there does, however, still appear to be one in the box). Of course, you’ll still have to figure out a way to listen to music while charging the phone.

The design language is very similar to the company’s Pixel Buds, complete with loops for keeping them in place. It’s probably going too far to call them wired Pixel Buds, with all of the functionality that entails (translation and the like), but the company does appear to be taking some cues from the lukewarmly received wireless earbuds.

The Google Pixel XL, meanwhile, appears to be going really large this time out. The new 6.4-inch Note 9’s got nothing on what’s reported to be a 6.7-inch display. We’re getting to the point where these things are basically tablets with calling capabilities. Of course, Samsung’s got the benefit of years of product design that have made it possible to sneak a large display into a relatively small footprint. Without actually holding the new device, it’s hard to say how unwieldy it really is.

Other bits and bobs include a Snapdragon 845, which is basically a prerequisite for any flagship smartphone to be taken seriously. The XL is also rumored to have a 3,430 mAh battery — actually a downgrade over last year’s model, in spite of yet another massive bump in screen size.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9: an AR Emojireview

Hi, I wrote a 3K word review of the new Samsung Galaxy Note 9. But you’re busy and it’s the weekend. I get it. For the sake of saving time, here’s a distilled version, narrated by the magic of the company’s deeply troubling AR Emoji version of me.

Design

Battery

Camera

Audio/Visual

Bixby

Price

Anyway, just read the damn review. I promise there’s only one of these creepy things in it.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review

There are no secrets in consumer electronics anymore. Sometimes it’s the fault of flubs and flaws and leakers. Sometimes it’s by design. In the case of the Galaxy Note 9, it’s a little bit of both.

The Galaxy S9 wasn’t the blockbuster Samsung’s shareholders were expecting, so the company understandably primed the pump through a combination of teasers and leaks — some no doubt unintentional and others that seemed suspiciously less so.

By the time yesterday’s big event at Brooklyn’s house that Jay-Z built rolled around, we knew just about everything we needed to know about the upcoming handset, and virtually every leaked spec proved accurate. Sure, the company amazingly managed to through in a surprise or two, but the event was all about the Note.

And understandably so. The phablet, along with the Galaxy S line, forms the cornerstone of Samsung’s entire consumer approach. It’s a portfolio that expands with each event, to include wearables, productivity, the smart home, automotive, a smart assistant and now the long-awaited smart speaker. None of which would make a lick of sense without the handsets.

If the Galaxy S is Samsung’s tentpole device, the Note represents what the company has deemed its “innovation brand,” the uber-premium device that allows the company to push the limits of its mobile hardware. In past generations, that’s meant the Edge display (curving screen), S-Pen, giant screen and dual-camera. That innovation, naturally, comes at a price.

Here it’s $1,000. It’s a price that, until a year ago seemed impossibly steep for a smartphone. For the Galaxy Note 9, on the other hand, that’s just where things start. Any hopes that the new model might represent a move toward the mainstream for the line in the wake of an underwhelming S9 performance can be put to rest here.

The Note is what it’s always been and will likely always continue to be: a device for the diehard. A very good device, mind, but one for those with an arm and or a leg to spare. Most of the good new features will trickle their way down the food chain to the company’s more mainstream device. At $720/$840, the S9 isn’t a budget phone by any stretch of the imagination, but at the very least, keeping it to three digits seems a little more palatable.

A good rule of thumb for a hardware review is incorporating the product into one’s own life as much as possible. It’s a pretty easy ask with a device like the Note 9, which has the advantage of great hardware and software design built upon the learnings and missteps of several generations.

It’s still not perfect by any means, and the company’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to the line means there are plenty of features that never really made their may into my routine. And while, as the largely unchanged product design suggests — the Note 9 doesn’t represent a hugely significant milestone in the product line — there are enough tweaks throughout the product to maintain its place toward the top of the Android heap.

All charged up

Let’s address the gorilla in the room here. Two years ago, Galaxy Notes started exploding. Samsung recalled the devices, started selling them, more exploded and they recalled them again, ultimately discontinuing the product.

Samsung apologized profusely and agreed to institute more rigorous safety checks. For the next few devices, the company didn’t rock the boat. Battery sizes on Galaxy products stayed mostly the same. It was a combination of pragmatism and optics. The company needed time to ensure that future products wouldn’t suffer the same fate, while demonstrating to the public and shareholders that it was doing due diligence.

“What we want to do is a tempered approach to innovation any time,” Samsung’s director of Product Strategy and Marketing told me ahead of launch, “so this was the right time to increase the battery to meet consumer needs.”

Given Samsung’s massive business as a component manufacturer, the whole fiasco ultimately didn’t dent the bottom line. In fact, in a strange way, it might ultimately be a net positive. Now it can boast about having one of the most rigorous battery testing processes in the business. Now it’s a feature, not a bug.

At 4,000mAh, the Note 9 features a 700mAh increase above its predecessor. It’s not an unprecedented number — Huawei’s already hit the 4,000 mark — but it’s the largest ever on a Note device, putting the handset in the top percentile.

As far as how that actually translates to real-world usage, Samsung’s not giving a number yet. The company simply says “all day and all night” in its release. I found that to be pretty close to the truth. I unplugged the handset at 100 percent yesterday afternoon. I texted, listened to Spotify, took photos, downloaded and just generally attempted to live my life on the damn thing.

Just under 22 hours later, it gave up the ghost and after much notification-based consternation about a critically low battery, the screen went black. Like I said, it’s not crazy battery life, but going most of a full day and night without a charge is a nice little luxury — and the sort of thing all phone makers should strive to achieve on their flagship products.

The company also, kindly, included the new Wireless Charging Duo. The charging pad is not quite as ambitious as the AirPower, but unlike that product, introduced nearly a year ago by Apple, I have this in my hands right now. So, point: Samsung. Charging the device from zero to 100 percent took three hours on the dot with the $120 “Fast Charge” pad. And it’s nice and toasty now.

Memories

Okay, about that price. Again, we’re talking $999.99 to start. There’s also a second SKU. That one will run you $1,295.99. Take a moment if you need to.

That’s a silly amount of money if you’re not the starting point guard for the Golden State Warriors. So much for the rumors that the company would be working to make its devices more economically accessible. And while the premium hardware has always meant that the Galaxy line is going to remain on the pricey side, I can’t help but point out that a few key decisions could have kept the price down, while maintaining build quality.

Storage is arguably the primary culprit. The aforementioned two SKUs give you either 6GB of RAM with 128GB or 8GB of RAM with 512GB. With cloud syncing and the rest, it’s hard to imagine I would come close to that limit in the two or so years until the time comes to upgrade my handset.

I’m sure those sorts of crazy media-hoarding power users do, in fact, exist in the world, but they’re undoubtedly a rarity. Besides, as Samsung helpfully pointed out, 512GB SD cards already exist in the world. Sure, that’s another $350 tacked onto the bottom line, but it’s there, if you need it. For most users, it’s hard to see Samsung’s claim of having “the world’s first 1TB-ready smartphone” (512GB+512GB) exists for little more reason than racking up yet another flashy claim for the 1960s Batman utility belt of smartphones.

Sure, Samsung no doubt gets a deal on Samsung-built hard drives, but the component has to be a key part in what’s driving costs up. For a company as driven by choice as Samsung, I’m honestly surprised we’re not getting more options up front here in the States.

Remote control

Confession: After testing many Galaxy Note models over the course of many years, I’ve never figured out a great use for the S-Pen. I mean, I’m happy that people like it, and obviously all of the early skepticism about the return of the stylus was quickly put to rest, as the company has continued to go back to the well, year after year.

But all of the handwritten note taking and animated GIF drawing just isn’t for me, man. I also recently spoke to an artist friend who told me that the Note doesn’t really cut it for him on the drawing front, either. Again, if you like or love it, more power to you, but it’s just not for me.

As silly as the idea of using the S-Pen as a remote control might appear at first glance, however, it’s clear to me that this is the first use of the built-in accessory I could honestly see using on a daily basis. It’s handy once you get beyond the silliness of holding a stylus in your hand while running, and serves as a handy surrogate for those who don’t own a compatible smartwatch.

The S-Pen now sports Bluetooth Low Energy, allowing it to control different aspects of phone use. Low Energy or not, that tech requires power, so the stylus now contains a super conductor, which charges it when slotted inside the phone; 40 seconds of charging should get you a healthy 30 minutes of use. Even so, the phone will bug you to remind you that you really ought to dock the thing when not in use.

The compatible apps are still fairly limited at launch, but it’s enough to demonstrate how this could be a handy little addition. Of the bunch, I got the most out of music control for Spotify. One click plays/pauses a song, and a double-click extends the track. Sure, it’s limited functionality, but it saved me from having to fiddle with the phone to change songs went I went for my run this morning.

You’ll need to be a bit more creative when determining usefulness in some of the other apps. Using it as a shutter button in the camera app, for instance, could be a useful way to take a selfie without having to hold the phone at arms’ length.

The entire time, I wondered what one might be able to accomplish with additional buttons (volume/rewind/gameplay)? What about a pedometer to track steps when you’re running on the treadmill without it in the pocket? Or even a beacon to help absent-minded folks like myself find it after we invariably drop it between couch cushions.

But yeah, I understand why the company would choose to keep things simple for what remains a sort of secondary functionality. Or, heck, maybe the company just needs to hold some features for the Note 10 (Note X?).

Oh, and the Blue and Lavender versions of the phone come in striking yellow and purple S-Pens, with lock-screen ink color to match. So that’s pretty fun.

Hey man, nice shot

Nowhere is the Note’s cumulative evolution better represented than the camera. Each subsequent Galaxy S and Note release seem to offer new hardware and/or software upgrades, giving the company two distinct opportunities per year to improve imaging for the line. The S9, announced back in February, notably brought improved low-light photography to the line. The dual aperture flips between f/1.5 and f/2.4, to let in more light.

It’s a neat trick for a smartphone. Behold, a head to head between the Note 9 (left) and iPhone X (right):

Here’s what we’re dealing with on the hardware front:

  • Rear: Dual Camera with Dual OIS (Optical Image Stabilization)
  • Wide-angle: Super Speed Dual Pixel 12MP AF, F1.5/F2.4, OIS
  • Telephoto: 12MP AF, F2.4, OIS
  • 2X optical zoom, up to 10X digital zoom
  • Front: 8MP AF, F1.7

This time out, the improvements are mostly on the software side of things. Two features in particular stand out: Scene Optimizer and Flaw Detection. The first should prove familiar to those who’ve been paying attention to the smartphone game of late. LG is probably the most prominent example.

Camera hardware is pretty great across the board of most modern smartphone flagships. As such, these new features are designed to eliminate the current weakest link: human error. Scene Optimizer saves amateur photographers from having to futz with more advanced settings like white balance and saturation.

The feature uses AI to determine what the camera is seeing, and adjusts settings accordingly. There are 20 different settings, including: Food, Portraits, Flowers, Indoor scenes, Animals, Landscapes, Greenery, Trees, Sky, Mountains, Beaches, Sunrises and sunsets, Watersides, Street scenes, Night scenes, Waterfalls, Snow, Birds, Backlit and Text.

Some are pretty general, others are weirdly specific, but it’s a good mix, and I suspect Samsung will continue to add to it through OTA updates. That said, the function itself doesn’t need a cloud connection, doing all of the processing on-board. The feature worked well with most of the flowers and food I threw at it (so to speak), popping up a small icon in the bottom of the screen to let me know that it knows what it’s looking at. It also did well with book text.

The success rate of other things, like trees, were, unsurprisingly, dependent on context. Get just the top part and it identifies it as “Greenery.” Flip the phone to portrait mode and get the whole of the trunk and it pops up the “Tree” icon. I did get a few false positives along the way; the Note 9 thought my fingers were food, which is deeply disturbing for any number of reasons.

[Without Scene Optimizer – left, With Scene Optimizer – right]

Obviously, it’s not going to be perfect. I found, in the case of flowers that it has the tendency to oversaturate the colors. If you agree, you can disable the feature in settings. However, you have to do this before the shot is taken. There’s no way to manually override the feature to tell it what kind of object you’re shooting. That seems like a bit of a no-brainer addition.

[Super slow-mo matcha under the flicking lights]

Flaw Detection serves a similar role as Scene Optimizer, helping you avoid getting in your own way as an amateur photog. The feature is designed to alert you if a shot is blurry, if there’s a smudge on the screen, if the subject blinked or if backlighting is making everything look crappy. In the case of lens smudging and backlighting, it only bothers with a single alert every 24 hours.

The blink detection worked well. Blur detection, on the other hand, was a bit more of a crap shoot for subjects in motion and those that were too close to the lens to get a good focus. The feature could use a bit of work, but I still think it’s one of the more compelling additions on the whole of the device and anticipate a lot of other companies introducing their own versions in the coming year.

[gallery ids="1689899,1689901,1689903,1689904,1689932"]

Design Note

The more the Note changes, the more it stays the same, I suppose. As expected, the design language hasn’t changed much, which is no doubt part of what made Samsung CEO DJ Koh think he could get away with using the device in public ahead of launch. The footprint is virtually the same in spite of the ever-so-slightly larger screen (6.3 > 6.4-inches, same 2,960 x 1,440 resolution) — from 162.5 x 74.8 x 8.6 mm on the 8, to 161.9 x 76.4 x 8.8 mm on the 9.

That’s perfectly fine. Samsung’s done an impressive job cramming a lot of screen into a manageable footprint over the past several gens. The only major change (aside from the lovely new blue and purple paint jobs) is the migration of the fingerprint sensor from the side of the camera to underneath it.

This was a clear instance of Samsung responding to feedback from users frustrated by all the times they mistook the camera for the fingerprint reader. The new placement helps a bit, though it’s still fairly close to the camera, and the fact that both are similar shapes doesn’t help matters. Thank goodness for that new smudge detector.

Oh, and the headphone jack is still present, because of course it is. For Samsung, it’s an important way to distinguish the product and approach from a world gone dongle mad.

Note on Notes

Oh Bixby, you eternal bastion of unfulfilled potential. A full rundown of new features can be found here. Overall, the smart assistant promises to be more conversational, with better concierge features. That said, Samsung’s once again tweaking it until the last moment, so I can’t offer you a full review until closer to the phone’s August 24 street date.

So stay tuned for that, I guess. I will say that the setup process can be a bit of a slog for a feature designed to make everything easier. Playing with Bixby voice required me to navigate several pages in order to connect the two. Thankfully, you should only have to deal with that the one time.

Samsung’s continuing to tweak the internals to make its device more suitable for gaming. The water-carbon cooling system tweaks the liquid cooling system found on the device since the S7, to help diffuse heat more efficiently. The large, bright screen meanwhile, is well-suited to mobile gaming, and the 6GB model handled Fortnite fairly well.

A final note

The next smartphone revolution always seems to be a year away. The potential arrival of a Samsung device with a foldable display makes the notion of carrying a massive device around in one’s pocket almost quaint. For the time being, however, the Note remains one of the best methods for transporting a whole lot of screen around on your person.

A lot has changed about the Note in the past seven years, but the core of the device is mostly the same: big screen and stylus coming together to walk the line between productivity and entertainment. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s too expensive for a lot of us. But it remains the phablet to beat.